People want to replicate the beauty of nature, but they invite death into their homes.
People want to replicate the beauty of nature, but they invite death into their homes.
A green ghost hanging on the wall

(this article first appeared in the fruit shell)

for the Richard Turner couple, 1862 was a desperate year.

from February of this year, their children contracted mysterious diseases one after another and died one after another in just a few months. Eventually, their last child, three-year-old Ann Amelia Turner--, developed the same symptoms. She became so weak that she could not swallow and died in pain.

at first, local doctors thought the children had diphtheria-a respiratory infection that was so common in the 19th century that it did kill many children. But things seem strange: several of the Turner children have died of illness, but others in close contact with them are safe and sound, which does not seem to be a sign of an infectious disease.

finally, by examining the tissue of Ann Amelia's body, chemist Letheby finally discovered the truth: the unfortunate little girl died of arsenic poisoning. What killed her was the green wallpaper decorated on the wall of her bedroom.

Victorian wallpaper pattern | JOHN TODD MERRICK & COMPANY, LONDON, UK, 1845

fatal Fashion Color

in 19th century Europe, the pursuit of fashion was far more dangerous than it is now. Delicate celluloid hair combs can catch fire when heated, elegant beaver top hats are processed with highly toxic mercury salts, and an obsession with bright emerald green can lead to death called arsenic poisoning.

the history of arsenic green pigments begins with a substance called Scheele\'s Green. In 1775, Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheler first got it in the laboratory. Slowly adding arsenic trioxide to the heated sodium carbonate solution, then adding copper sulfate, and then filtering and drying the product, the color is a bit like matcha green powder, whose chemical composition is copper hydrogen arsenite. Twenty-five years later, a brighter emerald green pigment was born. It is often called "Paris green" (Pairs green), or "emerald green" (emerald green), and the chemical behind it is copper arsenite acetate. Both of these green pigments are highly toxic. According to the words at the time, "it takes only a few orders to kill a person" (one order is equivalent to about 65 milligrams).

A can of Paris green was also used as rat poison at that time. Madame Talbot

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this green pigment is found in the works of famous painters such as Van Gogh and Turner. At the same time, it has become surprisingly popular in people's lives. These are veritable "Victorian fashion colors", which are used to make printed wallpaper, artificial flowers, wrapping paper and clothes, and even in food and children's toys. According to an article published in the British Medical Journal in February 1862, a woman in an arsenic green dress carried "enough poison to poison all the admirers she met in a half-dozen ballrooms" ("carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms").

arsenic green dress MONNIN Jacques/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Ghost on the wall

to be fair, green paint was not the only problem in those days, but the bright Paris green and its gorgeous wallpaper are indeed quite representative.

Victorian wallpaper patterns | CORBIE beautiful RE, SON & BRINDLE, LONDON, UK, 1879

colorful wallpaper patterns were very popular in Europe and the United States in the 19th century. Many wallpapers depict floral patterns or large natural landscapes, and if you want to show their beauty, you need to use bright green pigments in a large area. Arsenic green pigment is not easy to fade and low cost, so it is naturally favored by wallpaper manufacturers.

in fact, concerns have been raised since the beginning of these pigments. In 1815, the German chemist Leopold Gmelin pointed out in the newspaper that it was dangerous to use arsenic paint in wallpaper. But it was not until the mid-19th century that the dangers of these wallpapers began to receive real attention.

the Magdalene Mary by British painter Sandis (Frederick Sandys). The painting was created in 1859, and the background is also a very popular green wallpaper of this era.

since the 1850s, a large number of poisoning cases have been published in newspapers, magazines and medical journals, and the story of the Turner family is one of them. Turner's wallpaper was torn off in large areas, and it was used by children to play with and eat into their mouths, which is the most dangerous situation. But even adults who never lick wallpaper can't escape the curse of the green ghost.

many cases at that time showed that simply living in a room with arsenic wallpaper was enough to cause a series of toxic symptoms such as headache, sore throat, nausea, dizziness and eye inflammation. Some people will also find that they are always unwell at home, and going out to recuperate can relieve the symptoms. But this is not because of the pleasant environment of the resort, but because the hotel they live in is reluctant to be decorated with ornate arsenic wallpaper.The room.

Why can't you avoid arsenic poisoning if you don't lick or touch the wallpaper? An important problem is that the powder of these green pigments always falls off the wallpaper, forming toxic dust that is inhaled by the occupants. Good dyes should be firmly bound to paper or cloth, but arsenic green pigments only stick to the surface in the form of powder. These wallpaper surfaces will be "size" (glue), but it often does not play a sufficient role in fixing. Over time, the green on the wallpaper fades, and everything in the room is covered with green "dust". In addition, under the action of wet environment and mold, the arsenic pigment in the wallpaper will also undergo chemical changes to produce trimethyl arsine gas with the smell of garlic, which may also be harmful to health.

Victorian wallpaper pattern | Jules Desfosse, Paris, France, 1879


can you rest easy by tearing off the wallpaper? Not necessarily. The use of these green pigments in the 19th century was so common that even if they did not pursue gorgeous decorations, people might be caught in unexpected places.

for example, a doctor in Boston suffered from finger pain and found out that the reason was that his cards were painted with toxic arsenic paint. At a children's home in Massachusetts, children continued to have difficulty breathing and even two babies died. the problem was found in nurses' uniforms-arsenic paint was also found.

exposure to arsenic pigments causes green fingers and skin ulcers. Wellcome Collection

in the mid-19th century, European countries gradually began to legislate to ban the use of arsenic pigments in daily necessities, but only in the United Kingdom, the ban has not been introduced for a long time-this is related to the interests of arsenic mining and wallpaper manufacturing.

the death of female workers

arsenic green dress irritates the skin, and arsenic wallpaper is a headache and nausea, but it is not the consumers who bear the greatest risk, but the people who produce them. In the process of mining and processing arsenic mines and decorating products with green pigments, workers are exposed to far more toxins than consumers. Even in the face of poor working conditions, they may have no choice.

the death of Matilda Scheurer, a young female worker, is the most famous case among them. On November 20, 1861, she died painfully of chronic arsenic poisoning at the age of 19. Scheurer's job is to color artificial flower decorations, which are made of wax and leaves painted with Parisian green powder-a process that undoubtedly raises a lot of toxic dust. In the 18 months before her death, she had fallen ill for the same reason four times. The newspaper at the time reported that she vomited green water, turned her eyes and fingers green, and twitched every few minutes in the hours before she died.

A caricature called "arsenic Waltz" was published in British magazine Punch in 1862. It depicts skeletons in arsenic dresses and artificial flowers

in order to replicate the beauty of nature, people choose Scheler green and Paris green, but the consequences of these pigments completely move towards the opposite of "fresh nature". Now if you look at those Victorian wallpaper patterns, you will find them quite ironic.


Nicholas Eastaugh, Valentine Walsh, Tracey Chaplin, Ruth Siddall. Pigment Compendium: A Dictionary and Optical Microscopy of Historic Pigments. Butterworth-Heinemann

Lucinda Hawksley. Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home. Thames and Hudson Ltd

PS: by the way, I'd like to recommend the book "Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home"! Although I don't think there is anything particularly outstanding about the text (the details are indeed quite detailed), it contains a lot of Victorian wallpaper patterns, each of which has been tested to contain arsenic, and they are all very beautiful. It's cool to just look at the picture _ (: pictures) _